The Independent Spirit of Bernie
Few events, in general, are as over-hyped as the Oscars, and in the world of film, perhaps the most underappreciated event is the Independent Spirit Awards. Founded in 1984 (and called the Friends of the Independents Awards for the first two years), the non-profit organization celebrates, you guessed it, independent cinema. These are the movies with budgets a fraction of the size of the average Hollywood blockbuster, and often they much less easy to categorize.
This year's nominees were announced today, and the most well known of the entries in the Best Feature category is the latest Wes Anderson film, the coming-of-age comedy Moonrise Kingdom, which has the highest profile thanks to both Anderson's reputation and his impressive ensemble cast, which includes Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman. Anderson's wonderfully directed (and art directed) features are the epitome of what most consider a quirky, idiosyncratic "indie" film.
Close behind it in the Best Feature category in terms of profile is the relationship drama/comedy Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. The category is rounded out by coming-of-age tale Beasts of the Southern Wild; the gay-themed relationship drama Keep the Lights On; and Bernie, a true crime comedy that probably benefits more than any of the other films by being on the list because it's the toughest one to categorize.
I caught the film this summer, while travelling, on hotel pay-per-view (it's currently on Netflix, FYI). The poster is bland and doesn't say much, and with Jack Black starring it seemed to be a broad comedy, yet the trailer didn't elicit many laughs from me. The reviews were very good, however, and once I realized it was directed by legendary indie filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, School of Rock), I was convinced. Well, it turned out to be one of the best films of the year.
Black stars as the real life Bernie Tiede, a beloved small town funeral home worker who becomes the companion for miserable but wealthy old Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The closeted Bernie works his way into the extremely unpopular woman's heart. They go on cruises and vacations together; he moves in and becomes her right hand man, handling her finances; and she eventually cuts her estranged son out of her will entirely in favour of him. Bernie gives both his time and their money to just about everything, from donations to the Boy Scouts, to putting on plays, and he's heavily involved with the church in both respects. But Marjorie increasingly demands more of his time, and then becomes downright abusive, until one day he snaps and shoots her in the back four times with a 22-calibre rifle. He hides the body in the freezer and pretends she's sick, but eventually a cop (Mathew McConaughy) begins to investigate.
The film is an even mix of dark comedy, character study and true crime, making the $6 million movie just about impossible to market to the mainstream but ideal for the indie world, even if putting Black in as the lead suggests a wacky time at he multiplex. He captures his character's down home demeanour and suppressed frustration perfectly, adding just a touch of mania to suggest what the man is capable of doing when pushed too far.
Of course the whole thing is really fascinating because it hews closely to the real story (which is detailed in this ten-minute documentary), which took place in 1996, in Carthage, Texas. Linklater incorporates footage of what is either very realistic mockumentary footage or actual documentary footage of townsfolk reacting to the crime, plus a snippet at the end of the film of Black spending time at a prison with the real Bernie Tiede, who's currently serving a life sentence.
That Bernie may be anything but a free spirit nowadays, but the film he inspired is exactly the sort of hard-to-categorize movie just made for the Independent Spirit Awards. Movies like this allow familiar stars such as Black to break their typecasting in some wonderful ways. So if you were curious as to just why your favourite A-lister sometimes appears in these kinda random small movies for obviously not much money, look no further than Bernie.